ITM Presentation to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education and Skills in relation to School Enrolments

What follows is a copy of the presentation by Brigid Quilligan of ITM’s position in relation to school enrolment on the 4th December 2013:

The Irish Traveller Movement welcomes the opportunity to be present at this hearing. Founded in 1990, the Irish Traveller Movement is a national membership organisation representing Travellers and Traveller organisations.

I refer to a detailed submission we have made in response to the draft general scheme of the education (admission to schools) Bill 2013, and before that to a submission on a framework of an enrolment discussion paper 2011. In that the Irish Traveller Movement, ITM, outlined previous practices of segregation and current experiences of refused enrolment and other forms of discrimination, school bullying and other forms of harassment, limited recognition of and focus on Traveller ethnicity in the curriculum and the inadequate response by many educational establishments to cultural diversity, which impact on all educational participation and outcomes for Traveller children.

While some progress has been made on Travellers in education in recent years, the proposed Bill must be seen in the context of the withdrawal of all Traveller-specific educational supports in 2011 and the 87% cut in the Traveller-specific education budget. There remains a significant gap between the participation and attainment of Traveller children as compared with their settled counterparts. More than 8,000 Travellers are in mainstream education. In 2011, only 3% of Travellers had continued their education past the age of 18, compared with 41% of the settled population, and 17% of Travellers have no formal education compared with 1.4% of the settled population.

The ITM commends some elements of the proposed Bill but it has not gone far enough and further research is required to determine what the effect would be of the proposed changes on the most marginalised children in society, including Travellers. Our main concerns relate to the proposals under heads 5, 6 and 7, namely, the parent rule, the removal of the right to appeal a refusal to admit under section 29, the lack of clarity on the National Educational Welfare Board’s powers, and the obligation to require co-operation between schools and other related matters.

Traveller children are statistically far more likely to be excluded from admissions under the proposed 25% parent rule. The ITM is concerned that this rule, which will disproportionately affect Travellers, will, for the first time, be put on a statutory footing which cannot be challenged. We recommend the abolition of the parent rule in its entirety. Meanwhile, further clarification is sought, which is not contained in the Bill, on the circumstances where requests for derogations will be refused in situations where the criteria are fulfilled. We also seek statistics on schools which will be eligible to apply for this derogation and any supporting statistical geographic or socioeconomic analysis carried out while drafting this legislation.

Regarding the section 29 right to appeal to the Department against a refusal to admit, as currently drafted, the legislation provides that a board of management’s decision, following an appeal of a principal’s refusal to admit, will be final. Although the draft legislation provides that the principal must withdraw from considerations relating to such appeals, we submit that the board of management would not be sufficiently impartial or independent to be the final arbiter in appeals relating to refusals to enroll. The only other avenue then available would be by way of a judicial review in the High Court, an option which is impractical and unavailable to most parents. The right of appeal and access to justice is thus reserved only for those parents who can afford it.

Under the proposed draft, the right of appeal to the Department of Education against a decision to expel or suspend remains in situ. There is a lack of clarity on the National Educational Welfare Board, NEWB’s powers, the obligation to require co-operation between schools and other related matters. It is not explicitly stated under head 9, where the NEWB is empowered to force a school to enroll a particular pupil that schools will be required to co-operate on the designation of schools.

There is a lack of clarity as to how the Minister will require co-operation between schools pursuant to the legislation and regulations. The draft legislation does not provide for any mechanism whereby the NEWB can independently ascertain whether a school has places or whether the NEWB or the child will have a choice about which local schools are available. Perhaps a live database could be initiated and moderated by the Department of Education and Skills to be updated regularly by principals with clear criteria as to when a school considers itself full.

Alternatively, perhaps a mandatory obligation could be imposed on all schools to take a specific number of such students per year and to account for the ethnic and racial balance of their school and whether it is representative of the local population. Otherwise, there are concerns that Traveller children will be enrolled in the schools in the area that are traditionally less academic, regardless of the attributes and talents of that particular Traveller child. Again the ITM has received feedback that some schools have a history of encouraging Traveller students to transfer to Youthreach after a couple of years of second level education, thereby limiting the student subject choices which in turn limits their access to third level.

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